Monarch butterflies are a bit like the canary in the coal mine–we have noticed that they are a rare rather than a common sight and know that man-made changes have something to do with it.
Garden centers have been very attuned to the growing concern about disappearing butterflies and pollinating insects. Butterfly bushes, butterfly weeds, and whole palettes of butterfly and bee attracting plants are commonly showcased at area nurseries and garden centers.
It seems that the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is of particular interest, however, due to its size, beauty and the memories it evokes. As herbicides eradicated the monarch’s only food source–milkweed–monarch numbers have plummeted. In addition, USDA scientists have linked the use of neonicotinoid pesticides to decline of larval monarch caterpillars. Save Our Monarchs, a nonprofit dedicated to planting milkweed and protecting butterfly habitat says that in 2014, migrating monarchs covered only about 1.7 acres of land in the Mexican mountains. This compares with a colony covering 45 acres in 1996.
Planting milkweed can work well in an ornamental garden. In addition to the common milkweed we see in ditches Asclepias syriaca, garden centers a great sources for Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), a rosy pink variety; and Butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), a great orange accent plant.
While growing milkweed is an important part of the picture to preserving and increasing monarch numbers, there are several gardeners who go a step further and actually protect the monarch eggs and caterpillars in enclosures where they can eat milkweed, form a chrysalid and metamorphose into monarch adults.
It’s estimated that in the great outdoors, survival of the eggs and caterpillars might be 10 percent at best. So bringing the caterpillars into a screened enclosure can increase survival to 90 percent. One garden blogger who relishes this endeavor is Kylee Baumle, a garden writer and naturalist from northwest Ohio. If you want a good picture of what rearing monarchs is all about, check out her blog Our Little Acre, and enter “monarch” in the search engine to view all the blogs about monarchs. Another great resource is Monarch Watch, that offers a program to help gardeners develop monarch way stations.
If you are interested in learning more about monarchs, there are oodles of resources on the internet and in the library. One book that is worth a read, though not brand new, is captivating–Four Wings and a Prayer by Sue Halpern.
And if you’d like a little help deciding what plants to include in your own butterfly and pollinator garden, as always, give Garden’s Grace a call!